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Gray on black
Mr. Wilder's slavery museum may never come to Fredericksburg

Date published: 4/15/2011

THE final "Who's Who" entry for L. Douglas Wilder, the first black American elected a state governor (of Virginia), will be long and impressive. Nobody thinks, however, that it will include the phrase "founder of the U.S. National Slavery Museum." The museum, Mr. Wilder's brainchild, seems, sadly, a victim of crib death. Fundraising has stopped, back taxes to Fredericksburg on the rudimentary museum site in Celebrate Virginia exceed $147,000, and the former governor is incommunicado on the subject.

But for those (including us) who had hoped for a museum in or near Fredericksburg that would tell slavery's story, the cavalry may be coming--ironically, the Confederate cavalry.

The Museum of the Confederacy, based in Richmond, is driving hard to open a satellite museum in Appomattox, scene of Lee's surrender to Grant, by next spring. That done, says Waite Rawls, president of the 115-year-old institution, the museum's attention will swing to the Fredericksburg area, site of four major Civil War battles.

Those sympathetically interested in the bondage of African-Americans may wonder why they should welcome a Confederate anything--especially an institution focused on the ephemeral nation that defended slavery during its existence and would have maintained that wickedness had Messrs. Lincoln, Grant, et al. not prevailed. Mr. Rawls has a two-part response, of words and facts.

"The Confederacy had a total population of 9 million," he says. "Of these, 4 million were African-Americans, 3.6 million of whom were slaves and the remainder freemen. If we are truly the Museum of the Confederacy, we must interpret the lives, conduct, and issues of 40 percent of the population of the Confederacy."

The facts support the words. Twenty years ago, in what Mr. Rawls calls a "Nixon goes to China" event that must have spilled a few mint juleps, the museum sponsored the biggest slavery exhibition to this date, "Before Freedom Came." Since then, says Mr. Rawls, the museum has funded copious research on slavery, and it supports a program at North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, aimed at unearthing the forgotten stories of slaves. Three NCCU interns even worked at the museum helping catalog the papers of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Tomorrow, the museum will take part in Civil War and Emancipation Day in Richmond.

An abiding theme of the Museum of the Confederacy, whether it locates in the city or an adjacent county, surely will be the area's big battles--Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. But the story of slavery in those battles, and in all aspects of the war, promises to be interwoven in vivid thread.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial has been hailed as an opportunity to drop old rigidities of thought and expand the usual army-vs.-army discussion of the fratricide. It's time all Virginians joined in union against comfortable prejudices and enlisted in what Mr. Rawls' museum espouses--a confederacy of understanding.